India’s Radioactive Bazaar

India’s Radioactive Bazaar

Author Name: Sitara Noor      14 Mar 2022     India

While global markets are taking a dip due to economic recession, India’s illicit uranium market seems to be flourishing unabated. Earlier this year in February, eight people were apprehended in Nepal, including two Indian nationals for illegally possessing and attempting to sell ‘uranium like substance.’ The material was reportedly smuggled from India. This is not just a one-off incident - theft and illegal sale of nuclear and radioactive material in India is a recurring phenomenon. Earlier in May 2021, reports of seizure of seven kilograms of highly radioactive uranium from a scrap dealer worth INR 210 million raised serious concerns about India’s nuclear security capabilities. Over the past two decades, approximately over 200 kilograms of nuclear and radioactive material has reportedly disappeared from Indian facilities.

Frequent incidents of loss and theft of nuclear and radioactive materials in India indicates the failure of the nuclear security system at multiple levels. First, there seems to be a gap in the material accounting and control system. As per international practices and guidelines, each facility - from uranium mining to enrichment facilities and reactors - is supposed to have a stringent material accounting and control system to ensure that not even an iota of material is unaccounted. Second, the nature of incidents in India hints at the involvement of an insider -someone working at the nuclear facilities or mining sites working independently or colluding with an outsider. This indicates the serious risk of insider threat and a failure of the personnel reliability programme. Thirdly, a series of nuclear security events with such impunity indicate serious issues with the nuclear security culture in India.

Any country developing a civilian or military nuclear programme is required to have a robust regulatory system and infrastructure in place. A strong and independent regulatory authority or infrastructure would ensure that all nuclear activities in a country - from mining, milling nuclear plants - follow prescribed international standards as specified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That should not only include control over hardware and physical installations, but also a stringent check on the qualification and conduct of human resource as well.

While countries like India, with military programmes, would not share details of their military installations for obvious security and credibility issues, their civilian regulatory infrastructure would serve as a benchmark and may give a sense of what their military infrastructure possesses. In fact, considering the inherently sensitive nature of a military programme, one would argue that in all likelihood, the military side would have more stringent systems in place to ensure that no security incident happens involving strategic assets of a country.

In India’s case, the important element of stringent security measures through an independent nuclear regulatory body is missing. India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) which oversees the safety and security measures in the country is not independent in its position and function. It is a subset of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) that is responsible for nuclear operations in the country. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that AERB would have the power to stop any operations undertaken by DAE even if it is found to not be in line with prescribed international standards. In 2011, to offset international pressure and to ally growing domestic concerns over nuclear safety after the Fukushima accident in Japan, the Indian government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill with the aim to establish a more independent nuclear regulator. Members of the Standing Committee of Science and Technology criticised the proposed bill’s inefficacy to ensure functional autonomy of the regulatory body. The bill, however, was never taken up in the Lok Sabha (Parliament) and has lapsed. In 2015, India hosted an Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission of the IAEA to review the country’s regulatory framework for the safety of its Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs). In this safety review mission, there were serious questions raised over the inefficacy of India’s regulatory setup. In its recommendations, the review mission suggested that ‘the Government should embed the AERB’s regulatory independence in law, separated from other entities having responsibilities or interests that could unduly influence its decision making.’ In response to that criticism, there was some movement to reintroduce the NSRA Bill. A series of inter-ministerial meetings were held with the aim to introduce a new draft of the Bill but to date, there is no further development in that regard.

It is, however, noteworthy that even if the NSRA Bill is tabled again and gets approved by the Lok Sabha, it will only look at the safety aspect of the regulatory board, regulation of security measures would still be not independent of the DAE. Besides the international community, there are voices within India who have raised serious concerns over her fast-expanding nuclear programme on the one hand, and absence of stringent safety and security measures on the other. For example, India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) warned about the gaps in nuclear security and the relationship between the AERB and DAE.

It is important to note that nuclear security is a national responsibility. Nuclear threats and consequences of nuclear terrorism can transcend international borders, therefore, there are justified concerns from the international community, especially neighbouring states. Pakistan has pointed to multiple security lapses in India’s nuclear infrastructure because, in case of any incident of nuclear terrorism, the transboundary spread of radioactivity might affect the entire neighbourhood directly.

At the international level, states developing civilian nuclear programmes are required to undertake and fulfil certain security requirements that are shared in form of information circulars and other technical guides by the IAEA. The primary legal measure is the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its 2005 amendment, both of which India has signed and ratified. India should have an independent and robust nuclear regulatory authority that would act as a watchdog and oversee if anything is not up to the mark. The country is also a party to the IAEA’s INFCIRC/869 that came out as a key takeaway from the Nuclear Security Summit process and entails additional responsibilities such as self-assessments and other international cooperation. Due to the lack of requisite nuclear security measures, India consistently ranks low in the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Security Index.

Currently, there are 22 nuclear reactors in operation and an additional 21 are under construction in India. The state is also a recipient of nuclear fuel from various countries, such as Canada and Kazakhstan. Apart from that, nuclear and radioactive material is also used in medicine and industry.

The absence of stringent security protocols may embolden unscrupulous elements within the system as well as terrorist outfits in the country to acquire nuclear material for financial gains or use it for terrorism purposes. Consequences of such a situation would be far dangerous. Therefore, India’s desire for proper integration into the global non-proliferation architecture such as membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) should be contingent upon New Delhi’s ability to streamline its nuclear security measures. Similarly, CPPNM’s upcoming review conference should also add moral pressure on India for greater nuclear responsibility.

 

Sitara Noor is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. The article was first published by the Diplomat. She can be contacted at cass.thinkers@gmail.com. Twitter @NoorSitara

Image Source: Photo by matejmo/Getty Images, accessed at https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/07/is-the-threat-of-nuclear-terrorism-distracting-attention.html

 

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